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What socialism is — according to Michael Harrington
America's socialists owe a lot to one man, but what did he think about socialism?
- Michael Harrington was a public intellectual who strove to help the poor. In doing so, he inspired a generation of socialists.
- He was the first chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, and nearly ran for president in 1980.
- While he is far from the only influential thinker on the American left, his ideas have had an outsized influence over the last sixty years.
The United States is seeing a renewed interest in left-wing ideas. Chicago might have five socialists on its city council by April, a democratic socialist is considered a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, and many Americans like the idea of "socialism" more than the concept of capitalism.
A great deal of the credit for this has to go to Bernie Sanders, who campaigned as a democratic socialist, despite not really being one, in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Some of the credit should also go to the members of the Democratic Socialists of America, who have been very successful over the last two years not only in growing their organization but as activists working to make socialist ideas mainstream.
What exactly they say socialism is has a lot to do with the thought of their founding chairman, a public intellectual named Michael Harrington.
Michael Harrington was an American intellectual known for the book The Other America, which is often credited with inspiring the War on Poverty. A leading socialist, he was involved with several left-wing organizations. He was so well known as a public intellectual that he considered running for president in 1980. His ideas continue to influence the Democratic Socialists of America, who cite him on their history page.
What does he say socialism is?
He talks about what socialism actually is in his book Socialism Past and Future, which he finished writing shortly before his death. After a few chapters of introduction to basic theory and history, he attempts to answer the question directly by looking to what he calls "socialization":
"Socialization means the democratization of decision making in the everyday economy, of micro as well as macro choices. It looks primarily but not exclusively to the decentralized, face to face participation of the direct producers and their communities in determining the matters that shape their social lives. It is not a formula or a specific legal mode of ownership, but a principle of empowering people at the base, which can animate a whole range of measures, some of which we do not even yet imagine."
In this case, socialization means democratizing workplaces and economic decisions. This can take many forms, such as giving workers a say on corporate boards as they have in Germany, having enterprises organized as worker-owned cooperatives such as Mondragon, or forcing companies to issue shares of stock to the workers as was proposed in Sweden. At the civic level it can also include participatory budgeting.
His dedication to socialization means that he was able to critique government programs that he found otherwise agreeable. In one case, he praised the work of the government owned Tennessee Valley Authority but pointed out how the people who worked for it or lived in areas it operated in had little more influence over its operations than they would have if it were privately owned.
This doesn't mean he was utterly opposed to public enterprises or nationalizations, since he understood that in the modern world some things would be hard to manage for the public benefit otherwise, but rather that nationalization also needed socialization to fully realize the goals of the socialist movement.
What did he have to say about the USSR?
As a socialist in the 20th century, he had an opinion on the USSR and often had to compare his vision of utopia with the Soviet model.
Harrington believed that Karl Marx was a democrat in the sense that his political ideology supports democracy. However, he did blame Marx for excessive vagueness and making it too easy to justify dictatorships with his theory. This, he argues, allowed Lenin and Stalin to claim they were following Marx to the letter as they sent vast numbers of working people to Gulags.
He also argued that the Russians, realizing that they could hardly implement socialism in a semi-feudalistic society, hoped to use state control of the economy to modernize rapidly. Using "socialism" to do this was never planned for in Marxist theory and had more in common with the Prussian route to modernization than anything else.
In the Russian model, the state controlled the economy with little or no input from the workers. The state was, in turn, controlled by the communist party with little or no input from the majority of the population who were non-members. He argued that these points made the Russian model "Authoritarian Collectivism" rather than "socialism."
He then argues that this analysis can be applied to any non-industrialized, impoverished, unstable country that adopts "socialism" as an ideology and then uses it to try and modernize rapidly. He gives the examples of Russia, China, and Cuba as case studies in what not to do when making a successful democratic socialist society. The utter lack of democracy either in the workplace or in the political system being two fundamental problems.
This guy died in 1989, what do his ideas have to do with our problems today?
Harrington's ideas on what could happen to capitalism in the early 21st century were frighteningly accurate. In his final book, he considers the problem of automation leaving vast armies of the unemployed in the midst of greater economic output than ever seen before. He discusses how this automated unemployment might affect consumer demand and how that would alter the entire economy.
He also considers ecological problems that were only just coming onto the radar in the late '80s that we are now grappling with. At several points, he discusses the greenhouse effect and posits that capitalism will be unable to fix the problem. Instead, he argues that there must be an international movement dedicated to fixing the issue at the expense of the countries that put most of the pollutants into the air.
His solution to both of these issues is — you guessed it — socialism. In the first case, to assure that in a world where fewer workers are actually needed to produce the goods and services we need can share in what will be the incredible productivity gains automation promises to bring us all. In the second, to help keep us from destroying the planet we live on in the name of a quick buck.
As America continues to consider democratic socialism as a cure for its social ills, the insights of Professor Harrington will be of great use. His ideas continue to influence some of the most prominent voices on the left today and his work continues to inspire those who want to make the world a little more just.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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